Category Archives: Cities

The Changing Way We Work & Live – part 2

Urban Decay

Urban Decay (Photo credit: pmorgan)

The previous post showed how technology is enabling location independence for the workforce for the first time since the Industrial Revolution created the need for urbanisation.

Smart devices, such as smartphones and powerful tablets, are providing people with the ability to be fully productive at customer sites, from home or wherever else the demands of the role take them, with sales of these devices outstripping those of PCs for the first time in 2011.

Estimates vary widely, but it seems that at least 10% of the workforce today works from home rather than in an office, and estimates are that this could reach as much as 60% in a decade. What’s more, contrary to what many employers feared, it seems that working from home increases productivity noticeably – some 10-15%, in fact – due to people working longer with fewer breaks and having less interruption.

But this location independence has far wider implications, too:

  • Equipment purchases – concomitant with location independence, people want to have their own choice of devices: the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) phenomenon.  Initially concerned about the security implications of people using their own devices, companies have realised that the cost savings more than compensate for the additional security/monitoring required, and the employee is happier, too. Of course, this has ripple effects on the supply chain as companies no longer need to buy large volumes of end-user equipment due to the users purchasing their own, normally from the retail channel. This is exacerbated by a move into the cloud and companies consequently no longer needing as many servers and storage systems as they simply use these “as a service” from the cloud providers – again impacting the supply chain for such equipment.
  • Pervasive communications – of course, for location independence to work, people need access to fast communications links wherever they are. This is continuing to drive the roll-out of faster, cheaper mobile and fixed-line communications throughout the country. This trend will continue – more bandwidth, cheaper, driving the need for even more as applications increasingly take advantage of whatever is available. Inexpensive, or even free, video conferencing is quite normal now – replacing meetings in offices – and the use of vide for demonstrations, sales tools and so on fuels an ongoing demand for even more.
  • Housing prices – one issue that’s seldom mentioned when talking about location independence is the impact on house prices. As people need to cluster less around major metropolitan areas to work, so this must impact prices in areas that were in very high demand for the reason of convenient access to work. Could this be the catalyst that finally bursts the London property bubble? Could it also cause prices to increase in more remote, cheaper areas as people opt for quieter spots? And then what about the impact on transport – less commuting means fewer passengers on the trains and tube. Not only might this mean people actually getting seats when commuting, but it may force the operating companies to reduce prices to try and attract people to use the services.  The socio-economic impact of this location independence could be huge.
  • Holidays / Leave – another interesting result of the increasing move to people working from home is the effect on holidays and leave. Not only is it increasingly difficult to monitor when people are “at work” or not, the lines are also blurring between work and leisure time. All of this creates headaches for companies when it comes to such things as people taking time off. A number of companies, particularly in the USA, are now moving away from formal leave allowances and the administration that goes with this, opting instead for employees being able to determine their own leave requirements, provided they get their work done. Not only does this further improve motivation and morale but improves company balance sheets as they no longer have to provide for paying out against untaken leave – and for large companies, these amount can be substantial.

Just as the Industrial Revolution led to urbanisation in the 18th and 19th centuries, could technology and location independence lead to the reduction of these large conurbations in the 21st century?

One thing’s certain – work will never be the same again.

Note: I first posted this on the Business Connexion blog on 4 Mar.

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The Changing Way We Work & Live – part 1

Laptop on beach


Laptop on beach (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s a revolution under way that is gaining momentum, and yet doing so in a way that although we scarcely notice the changes from day-to-day, when we look back a few years we can see they’re enormous.

This revolution is in the way we work and live.

Ten years ago, working from 9 to 5 in an office was overwhelmingly the norm, and when we left the office at 5 we effectively switched off from work until we arrived back at our desks the next morning.

Today, this is very different and the lines between work and leisure are increasingly blurred, impacting almost every aspect of life from where we work, to how, when and even to our holidays, and yet we’re really still in the early stages of this revolution.

It all came together with the convergence of the Internet, smartphones and notebook PCs in the mid-late 90s – the Internet becoming increasingly pervasive once a user-friendly browser, Netscape, was released in 1994, the term “Smart Phone” first being used in 1997 and, of course, the increasing power and affordability of notebook PCs throughout the 90s.

By 2000, this convergence of technologies was enabling people to become properly location-independent – accessing email at any time, from anywhere, and moving from this to being able to run an increasingly wider list of applications on these portable devices: initially the notebook PCs, but increasingly on smart phones as the performance of these devices improved. For the first half of the decade, though, such location independence was still the preserve of the ‘early adopters’ as the technologies continued to evolve and the cost and availability of bandwidth improved, with such ‘early adopters’ being equipped by the companies for which they worked.

The introduction of the iPhone in 2007 brought about the next significant jump in working practice – or rather, the introduction of the Apple App Store a few months after the iPhone brought about this jump.  The iPhone and App Store enabled people to choose from a wide range of applications that enabled their smartphones to be so much more functional than had been the case to date.

Suddenly, Apple moved into the mainstream of intelligent device use, and people started demanding that they be allowed to use their own smartphone (the iPhone, in this case) rather than the company-supplied one, (most often a Blackberry at that time). People liked the new applications that were available, and wanted to use these at work as well as in their leisure time.

And then, in 2010, came the iPad…

This combined sufficient power and screen size to effectively run most business-level applications that people needed to access when on the move, with battery life than enable all-day working – a major limitation of notebook PCs that typically could only run for a few hours.

For the first time, people could work remotely from their offices all day without worrying about power source availability – true location-independence had become feasible.

Of course, things continue to evolve. PC makers, seeing massive market share being taken by these portable smart devices (phones and tablets), which outsold PCs for the first time in 2011, have countered with Ultrabooks – full-power notebooks that utilise solid state disks and great battery life to provide full PC performance with all-day power. Tablets, too, get more powerful and functional, while bandwidth continues to become more pervasive and cheaper.

The “Bring Your Own Device” movement is now taking off – users insisting on being able to work with their own choice of devices and companies recognising the cost savings, and motivational advantages of allowing this.

Today, it’s entirely commonplace for employees to have no real office address: their contact details show a mobile number alone, and they work from home, from client sites and from wherever else is most convenient. They come together over video conference calls from multiple places, and share knowledge using a multiplicity of internet-based tools.

And this trend will keep accelerating, with interesting social consequences likely to emerge as society increasingly reverses the location-dependence introduced with the Industrial Revolution.

I’ll explore some of these, together with the technology issues driving them, in future posts.

Note: I first posted this on the Business Connexion blog on 11 Feb.

Our Changing Lifestyle

London

Many of you will have come across the various forms of the “Did You Know?” or “Shift Happens” slide shows over the past decade or so – there are several versions on YouTube, of course.

Regardless of how accurate you believe the figures presented to be, the facts of the matter are that the nature of work is changing more fundamentally than many people yet believe – and is doing so more quickly than any major change that has gone before.

Urbanisation really came into its own with the Industrial Revolution: although towns/cities had existed almost from the dawn of civilisation, it took the centralising of manufacture to drive the majority of the workforce into conveniently situated accommodation near to their work.

Now, though, two major factors are driving the next big change in the way we live:

  • The increase of service industries – in the US and the UK, this already accounts for around 77% of GDP, v 22% for “traditional industry,” and even in China service industries are fast approaching parity with “traditional industry” in GDP terms (44% v 46%).  Such “knowledge” work is far less location-dependant than manufacturing lines and their like.
  •  The increase in digital communication technologies and speeds which free us up from location dependence even more, as we can talk, meet (over video links), email, and so on from virtually anywhere, any time.

These factors are, of course, spawning ever-more smaller businesses focused on different niche market areas. Big business in many service areas is inefficient as management overheads lead to cost issues when compared with smaller businesses, which are also generally more nimble and able to adapt more rapidly to changing market conditions.

While the higher cost of property in cities was offset by the lower commuting costs which kept the populations of the cities growing, as people need to commute less to central locations so the need to live in a city diminishes and people become freer to choose where to live. Couple this with the issues over living conditions in crowded cities (the recent riots in UK cities underscore some of this) and a somewhat more rural residential lifestyle becomes attractive – less expensive, less crowded, quieter and less potentially dangerous.

The impact this could have on cities is enormous – property prices would drop as supply of properties exceeds demand and infrastructure investment would move elsewhere, following the people. Conversely, large-scale migration to more rural areas will create its own set of problems – residents objecting to large-scale growth (although the shop-owners won’t mind the influx of customers too much), crowded roads and creaking infrastructure which will have to be upgraded to handle the increased loads, and so on. District councils will start to compete with each other to offer the best combination of space (there’s no point moving from one crowded area to another), infrastructure, affordability and general lifestyle.

As location independence grows, the same, of course, should then start to happen at a country level. Some countries – Malaysia, for example – are busy today trying to attract retirees on the basis of lifestyle and costs, and so boost their economies through a relatively high-spending population. Can we expect to see a scenario in the next 10 years where countries compete to attract people on the basis of infrastructure, cost of living and general lifestyle, regardless of where the companies themselves are located?

What would this do for country citizenship, for taxation bases, social security networks and the like? Have you thought about where you would, or wouldn’t, like to live if you were able to be truly location-independent? How does your current country measure up?